REGGIE HAYES: Kevin Donley and Saint Francis football in unprecedented territory
Kevin Donley has been a great football coach for a long time. But what he’s doing now with the University of Saint Francis should be called what it is: Unprecedented.
What coach takes a program to the height of its powers in his 20th year running things?
What coach peaks – if his peak is actually here, after 39 years as a head coach – at age 66?
What program hits mediocrity, as Saint Francis did with a 6-5 season in 2014, and finds a way to turn disappointment into a return to excellence that exceeds anything that came before?
It’s unprecedented. And phenomenal.
“There’s something about this program that has shifted,” senior strong safety Spencer Cowherd said. “We’re hungry. We’re working hard. The coaches are demanding the best out of us and we come ready to work every day. If we keep this up, you’ll see Saint Francis in many more national championships.”
No. 1 Saint Francis (13-0) will play No. 2 Reinhardt (12-0) to try to win its second straight title in the NAIA national championship game at 6 p.m. Dec. 16 in Municipal Stadium in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“You have to get back there to have a shot at going back-to-back,” Donley said after Saint Francis’ 43-36 semifinal win over No. 3 Morningside on Saturday at Bishop D’Arcy Stadium. “Now we’ve got a shot to repeat.”
The foundation was set when Donley rebooted the program after the 2014 season. For whatever reason, the energy was low. Player commitment during the offseason had waned.
Donley knew he’d have to find a way for his players to buy back into the program. He was still a great coach, on his way to the 315 wins he has today. But he needed players willing to work, sacrifice and commit to the extras that separate a great program from a good one.
Donley found many of them already on campus in a group of 2014 freshmen.
He found it in local players, such as Cowherd, from Northrop High School. He found it in out-of-town players, such as under-recruited quarterback Nick Ferrer from Westfield. He found it in fearless grinders, such as receiver Sean Boswell, safety Lee Stewart III, tight end Zach Gegner, nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn and linemen Connor Holcomb, Alex Woods and Jaylen Gamble.
“These guys are the ones that came in, we were struggling, and they made the commitment to get it turned around,” Donley said. “The leadership, commitment and example they set was really invaluable.”
Donley’s talented staff of assistant coaches played a huge role, too, both in scouting and recruiting and in putting together the best training methods followed by innovative offensive and defensive schemes.
Consider what Saint Francis has accomplished since those 2014 freshmen, now seniors, set the new standard for commitment.
Over the last three seasons, Saint Francis is 37-2 with a 2016 national title and a current streak of 22 consecutive wins.
Ferrer has emerged as the greatest quarterback in program history, setting the Mid-States Football Association record for career touchdown passes and ranking second in career yards. Other records, including the rushing statistics of junior Justin Green, continue to pile up.
“We’ve had such a good run here, it’s mindboggling really,” Ferrer said.
It was fitting that several of the biggest plays in Saint Francis’ win over Morningside were made by seniors.
Ferrer threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns. Gegner caught the first touchdown pass. Boswell caught two scoring passes (with 133 receiving yards putting him at 996 yards for the season) and recovered the final onside kick. Hemmelgarn played well up front and stepped in as an unexpected sub to handle kickoffs. Stewart led the team in tackles and broke up two passes. The offensive linemen helped Green to 234 yards.
“Early on this season, we knew we’d have a target on our back,” Boswell said. “We came in maybe a little too high-headed. We were the champs and kind of acted like it. You have to have confidence but you can’t be too confident. We kept getting better and better. We’re peaking like Coach D said. This is the time to peak.”
Saint Francis is, indeed, peaking as a program, 20 years into its existence. There’s no better example of Donley’s coaching brilliance.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at email@example.com.